The 2018 Toronto International Film Festival is underway (Sept. 6-16), and L.A. Times critic Justin Chang is there on the ground, seeing as many movies as possible and keeping a day-by-day, film-by-film diary. This is one in a series of entries spanning from Day 1 to closing night. For more entries and reviews, click here.
Let it be noted that the key line in the swooning pop-rock melodrama “A Star Is Born” isn’t spoken, or sung, by either Lady Gaga or Bradley Cooper. It’s delivered by a hardened music-industry veteran played by a soulful Sam Elliott (is there any other kind?), who points out that all music is essentially a series of variations and interpretations on the 12 notes of a scale.
“It’s the same story told over and over,” he says. “All the artist can offer the world is how he sees those 12 notes.” He could, of course, be describing the movie he’s in, and perhaps offering a preemptive defense for those inclined to knock remakes on principle.
“A Star Is Born,” which marks Cooper’s directorial debut, is the latest gloss on a timeless Hollywood tragedy first told in the 1937 film starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, and then rekindled, gloriously, in 1954, with Judy Garland and James Mason. A 1976 version starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson relocated the love story of a rising actress and a fading, hard-drinking movie star to the music biz, which is where Cooper’s version picks up.
Given that the earlier iterations of this story were spaced around 20 years apart, you could plausibly argue that we were, if anything, overdue for another “A Star Is Born.” Or maybe it just feels that way now that this one has landed. Gorgeously shot, lighted and scored, and acted by both leads with an incandescence that feels fully lived in, Cooper’s movie seduces you almost immediately. It doesn’t promise the shock of the new, but from the first frame it casts a spell, the kind that lets you know immediately that you’re in good hands.
Cooper plays Jackson Maine, a beloved musician with a huge following, a wretched upbringing and a weakness for booze. Lady Gaga is Ally, a hard-working waitress who entrances Jackson the first time he sees her, crooning Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose” for an appreciative audience of drag-bar patrons. The movie’s dual casting coups are both predicated on a sly subversion of type: Cooper has to convince you that he’s been singing and performing his whole life, while Gaga, a popular music icon, has to play the gifted working-class novice.
Cooper also has to convince you he can direct, which he does, beautifully. Working with the superb cinematographer Matthew Libatique (“Black Swan”), he uses a gently hovering camera that seems to circle and even caress the actors, whether under the harsh red glow of concert lights or in the hushed intimacy of a Northern California home.
Cooper, who adapted the screenplay with Eric Roth and Will Fetters, keeps the story in a vivid, immediate present tense. He has conceived of his “Star Is Born” as a series of intimate fragments, of moments languorously drawn out and suspended before the camera for as long as possible — as if the characters themselves were aware of just how fleeting their happiness together will be.
You can see each new movement coming a mile away: the initial swoon of rapture, the glorious first duet that seals their love and Ally’s stardom, the intoxicating rush and the awful hangover of fame and love, the tragic cycle of one star ascending as another falls to Earth. But it hardly matters. This movie’s success may be a bit too bound up in its lovers’ trajectory — it soars when they do, it stumbles when they do — but it’s remarkable, per Elliott’s earlier words, just how many fresh reserves of emotion Cooper teases out of a well-worn formula. The scale may be the limit, but in the best moments of “A Star Is Born,” it feels like no limit at all.
Even before its recent world premiere at the Venice International Film Festival, where Gaga’s show-stopping arrival by water taxi set social-media feeds aflutter, “A Star Is Born” had already been earmarked as one of the season’s hottest titles. (It’s not every picture whose trailer goes platinum, or whatever the trailer equivalent of platinum is.) Warner Bros., which will release the film Oct. 5 in U.S. theaters, is giving it the kind of push that bespeaks mighty confidence: In addition to its multiple festival showings this week, the film has been screening three times a day at a separate multiplex here in Toronto, ensuring that journalists make time for the movie in their busy schedules.
My own scheduling proved strangely fortuitous: I caught “A Star Is Born” just a few hours before seeing Felix van Groeningen’s “Beautiful Boy,” another harrowing drama of love ravaged by substance abuse, and thus another movie with little interest in reinventing the narrative wheel.
This one happens to be drawn from real life, adapted from two memoirs by a father and son. It tells the story of the writer David Sheff (Steve Carell) and his discovery that his teenage son, Nic (Timothée Chalamet), has become hooked on crystal meth, among other drugs. David’s realization here isn’t just about Nic’s troubles; it’s of his own helplessness, his inability to free his child from a disease that has physically and chemically altered his brain and hence his entire identity.
As he showed in his Oscar-nominated melodrama “The Broken Circle Breakdown,” shot in his native Belgium, Van Groeningen has a flair for putting family trauma under the microscope. His approach isn’t clinical, exactly; nor is it devoid of emotion. But with its fussily nonlinear storytelling and its inclination toward montage — entire sequences are bathed in mood-setting pop songs and classical pieces — the movie often feels studied and calculated in ways that, in the end, might settle for one’s misty-eyed admiration rather than full-on devastation.
Your mileage, of course, may vary significantly, insofar as one viewer’s excessive restraint might be another’s slow-bleeding catharsis. The detachment at work in “Beautiful Boy” suggests an attempt to speak clearly and truthfully, to resist the clichés of the addiction drama while acknowledging that those clichés can hardly be rewritten. (As a portrait of an upper-middle-class white family in the throes of a precisely measured emotional breakdown, Van Groeningen’s movie reminded me of nothing so much as “Ordinary People,” a connection the movie itself acknowledges by casting Timothy Hutton in a small supporting role.)
Good actors, of course, can provide insights and revelations that words alone cannot, and Chalamet, fresh off his star-making performance in “Call Me by Your Name,” again provides piercing access to a teenage boy’s inner life, this time in a vastly different and more anguished emotional register. He’s matched, beat for nuanced beat, by Carell, whose capacity for dramatic stillness and complexity is hardly a surprise at this point, and no less welcome for it.
I began this dispatch by noting that originality in art is not just overrated but nearly impossible, so it seems right to end it by noting one of the more original, out-there pictures playing here in Toronto. Derivative in its influences but not its sensibility, “In Fabric” is the latest wonderfully weird exercise in genre fetishization by the British-born, Eastern Europe-based director Peter Strickland. It continues in the vein of his earlier films “Berberian Sound Studio” (2012) and “The Duke of Burgundy” (2014), which delivered magnificently cracked, pitch-perfect homages to Italian giallo horror movies and European sexploitation flicks, respectively.
With “In Fabric,” Strickland is back in giallo territory, and once again blurring the line between meticulous re-creation and deadpan send-up. That might be a lot of highfalutin description for a movie about a killer dress, a silky red garment that a British woman (the wonderful Marianne Jean-Baptiste) makes the mistake of purchasing at a store that happens to be run by witches. The head of this vaguely Roald Dahl-esque coven is played by Strickland’s regular collaborator Fatma Mohamed, her every line reading a loopy joy.
The dress passes from one unlucky wearer to the next, sort of like the star of a demon-possessed remake of “The Earrings of Madame de … ,” leaving a trail of burn marks and broken washing machines in its mischievous, murderous wake. Along the way, Strickland playfully hints at themes — the pernicious tyranny of capitalism, the commodification of desire — in a movie of ravishing colors and textures that ultimately elevates style and sensuality into something genuinely meaningful. Like any artist, Strickland might just be offering up his version of those same 12 notes; happily, his piano happens to be located in another galaxy.